Work could soon begin on Belfast's £400m Royal Exchange as plans submitted
Work will soon start on Belfast's £400m Royal Exchange redevelopment project as fresh plans are submitted for the ambitious but controversial scheme.
The Royal Exchange development is a 12-acre site based around Royal Avenue. New owner Castlebrooke Investments is planning a phased development of the area, which includes Donegall Street, North Street, Lower Garfield Street and High Street.
New plans submitted include "the construction of a new six-storey building on the existing surface level car park and part change of use to create a mixed use development comprising retail units, restaurants and cafes, residential units, offices, church and related community floor space, new streets and public realm works".
That includes the demolition of 53 Royal Avenue and 27-31 Rosemary Street.
It also includes "restoration" of Central Halls, Masonic Hall, at 15 Rosemary Street, 43/43a Rosemary Street and retention of 30-34 North Street.
The Masonic Hall building was completed in 1956 and was given B+ listed building status in 1990, according to website Future Belfast.
Plans have shown a move away from a retail-led scheme to include offices as well as accommodation, as part of a so-called 'mixed use' development.
But John Anderson, vice-chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, told the Belfast Telegraph the Royal Exchange application "perpetuates Belfast's complete lack of a coherent plan to enhance the city's unique selling points with quality architecture. Instead we are offered more overbearing and mediocre blocks looming over some of Belfast's best remaining buildings, some reduced to facades, some altered extensively and detrimentally and with others simply erased from the streetscape," he said.
Speaking about the latest application, which is one of several being made by developers, he said: "What characterises this type of application is its confusion, with the mix of previously approved components and new sections intermingled to the point that neither the public nor the Belfast City Council planning committee can easily assess the actual impact on the authentic, historic Belfast."
A spokesman for Castlebrooke Investments said it had submitted the application "following an extensive consultation process".
"Start on site for phase 1A is imminent which will return the historic Garfield building to its former glory and provide further restaurant and retail space and 24 residential units.
"Pre-commencement and investigation works are currently being completed on the Garfield building and archaeological works are currently underway in the North Street car park."
Among the plans, developers say "more utilitarian unsympathetic" rear buildings will be removed, behind the listed Masonic Hall at Rosemary Street.
Speaking about the listed buildings included in the plans, a design statement by developers says "although all of the listed buildings are retained, some level of alterations are necessary to allow for this viable reuse".
That could include "alterations and on occasions partial demolition of inappropriate additions".
Rebekah McCabe, who chairs the SaveCQ group, which is opposed to much of the firm's plans, has previously said that while it recognises "how badly this area needs development ... there are serious issues with the Royal Exchange scheme in its current form".